A team of El Camino Hospital volunteers, including one who normally staffs the hospital coffee shop, is being praised for their extraordinary dedication in helping a micro-preemie in the hospital's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
The girl, now named Skai, was born in August 2017 weighing barely one pound. She was more than three months premature. She was promptly surrendered by her mother.
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"She was about the size of your hand," said Jody Charles, Clinical Nurse Manager. Charles and her team set about providing the round-the-clock care such a fragile infant requires.
Still, they weren't happy with Skai's progress.
"The biggest deal with these very low weight babies is growing their brain," Charles said. "That wasn't happening. We watched her growth curves and she wasn't gaining weight."
Realizing time was critical, Charles struggled to figure out what more could be done to help Skai. "We gathered at the bedside and we all thought, 'What could we do differently? What's missing here?" Charles said.
The answer? Human touch.
Modified skin-to-skin contact is something understood to be of great benefit to premature babies ("modified" because special care must be taken due to all the wires and tubes attached to micro-preemies). Skai, though, didn't have any family members around to engage in the hours-long skin-to-skin process with her.
That's where the volunteers came in.
Charles spread the word that she was looking for help and five members of the hospital staff stepped forward. All were nurses who no longer worked directly with patients; three in administrative roles and two retired (including Sharon Holland, who volunteers as a barista at a coffee shop in the hospital).
A schedule was drawn up and seven days a week for the next six weeks one of the volunteers would arrive in the NICU. It would take four people to carefully transfer Skai from her bed to the volunteer. The two would then sit for two to three hours, the baby on the volunteer's chest.
"The first time I saw her she was so vulnerable," Denise Robb, one of the volunteers, said. "It was so clear it was going to take a village, a team, to take care of her."
Charles said never once did a volunteer fail to fill her shift.
"Within a few days of this activity, she started slowly gaining weight," Charles said.
The more the volunteers held Skai, the stronger she became and the fewer medicines and machines were required to keep her alive.
And now, 16 months later, she is thriving.
"She's a miracle," said Tina Pendleton who, along with Lisa Catterall later adopted Skai.
The two had been warned that because of how premature she was, Skai might face life-long medical challenges.
She has almost none.
"The people at the hospital gave us our daughter. They gave us a healthy child," Catterall said.
Skai's mothers give much of the credit for Skai's success to the volunteer cuddlers.
"Humans need humans. We are social animals and I honestly think that that cuddle time gave her the space she needed and made her realize that there's a village, there's a community. I'm here for a reason," Catterall said.
"We are so grateful," Pendleton said.